To say Shinji Kagawa’s once meteoric rise to the top of the world game has now hit something of an impasse would be an understatement.
Having been plucked from relative obscurity by Cerezo Osaka at the age of 17, the Hyoga native became the first Japanese player ever to sign a professional contract prior to leaving secondary education.
While his virtuoso performances were not enough to lift Osaka from the mire of the J-League’s second tier, his 57 goals in 127 appearances didn’t go unnoticed. Indeed, Borussia Dortmund’s precocious new manager Jurgen Klopp had long since earmarked him as a potentially key cog in his BVB revolution.
Klopp ultimately made his move in the summer of 2010, signing the then 20-year-old for a mere £280,000. Not only did Kagawa star for the German giants in their consecutive title successes during his only two seasons at the club, he was also named in the Bundesliga’s Best XI for both campaigns.
His swift vault up the rungs of the footballing ladder seemed nigh-on complete when he swapped the north-west of Germany for the north-west of England in 2012, making a much heralded move from Dortmund to Manchester United. The fee tipped the scales somewhere in excess of fifty times that which had initially taken him to Europe.
While Kagawa would go on to bag another league medal during his maiden Premier League season, his contribution to this particular title-winning side was altogether less pronounced. Although seemingly signed by Sir Alex Ferguson as the heir apparent to an unsettled Wayne Rooney, and in spite of the England striker’s inconsistent form during the 2012-13 campaign, the common consensus was that Kagawa failed to justify that billing during the opening stanza of his United career.
Scintillating displays against Premier League also-rans too regularly gave way to modest displays in crunch ties. His ineffectiveness during Manchester United’s match at the Bernabeu, for one, seemed to almost border on disinterest. These ‘little boy lost’ routines were, however, put down to first-season inconsistency for the most part, a plight commonly endured by top continental players adjusting to the robust British game.
His ability, it seemed, was never in question. Whether or not he had the temperament to impose his talent at the very highest level was very much the point of contention. Unfortunately, for United at least, Kagawa has still done little to quash these concerns as yet; his nineteen appearances so far this term have yielded neither a goal nor an assist.
Inevitably, those in the 24-year-old’s camp will be quick to cite a number of mitigating factors to justify this poor return, foremost among them being Kagawa’s lack of chances to showcase his wares in his favoured ‘number ten’ position. His critics, on the other hand, will conversely point out that despite United’s current wingers consistently failing to set the world alight, he has still been unable to lend his manager a viable alternative.
Rather, the comparatively unheralded Adnan Januzaj has leapfrogged Kagawa in the court of public opinion and, more importantly, in David Moyes’ pecking order. In a season where United have been frequently shorn their talismans-in-chief, it has notably been the rookie teen rather than the seasoned superstar who has won the Scot’s trust.
To a large extent, Kagawa’s failure to hold his own in the most threadbare Manchester United squad of recent memory is a damning indictment of his current status. While one would be inclined to believe that a player of his pedigree can certainly recover, what’s really up for debate is whether a club in transition is the right environment in which to do so.
After all, there are particular instances whereby United haven’t necessarily maximised the talent of their players. Juan Sebastian Veron, for example, was an Argentinian international of global renown when Ferguson shelled out a then English record £28.1m for his services in 2001.
His peerless performances in the 1998 World Cup, coupled with his similarly stellar contribution to Lazio’s double-winning side of 2000, meant United were deemed to be betting on a sure thing. Although the man dubbed La Brujita ('the little witch') produced some spellbinding moments in United red, his attempts to reconcile the intricacy of his game with the hustle and bustle of the Premier League were unsuccessful for the most part. As such, Ferguson opted to cut his losses, pawning the one-time jewel in his crown off to emerging rivals Chelsea in 2003.
By 2004, the Argentine had returned to Serie A altogether. In addition to Veron, equally telling comparisons can be drawn between Kagawa and another South-American, Diego Forlan. Although his arrival in the Premier League evoked considerably less hype than that of Kagawa, the powers that be at the club had seemingly lined up a similarly lofty trajectory for the Uruguayan.
Regrettably for Forlan, he endured an inauspicious time in front of goal akin to that of another former Old Trafford underachiever, Garry Birtles. The latter signed for United in 1980 off the back of a prolific spell with Nottingham Forest, but achieved a goal-to-game ratio of less than one in five during his much maligned two-season stint in Manchester.
Forlan measured even lowlier in the goal-scoring stakes; he netted just 17 times in 97 appearances. Like Birtles, who upon his return to Forest won two European Cups, Forlan only truly fulfilled his potential after leaving United. Along with picking up both the Spanish and European Golden Boots on two separate occasions following on from his departure, Forlan also proceeded to represent his country with distinction.
2010 saw him well-nigh single-handedly guide Uruguay to the World Cup semi-finals, a feat for which he was voted Player of the Tournament, and to Copa America gold the following year. With all this in mind, while Shinji Kagawa should still remain committed to establishing himself as a staple of the Manchester United side, the recent arrival of the club’s latest record signing Juan Mata must surely have brought his view of the exit door into even sharper focus.
Whether or not the stars will ultimately align for the former Dortmund man in Manchester remains to be seen, but there is precedence to suggest that the grass can occasionally be greener elsewhere. As far as United themselves are concerned, it may yet prove to have again been a case of the right player at the wrong time.
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